Reviewed by Jo Helen RAILSBACK Tennessee State University, NASHVILLE, TN 37202
This volume by one of the noted sociologists of our time is a theoretical discussion (backed by actual data taken from studies) of what literary critics call "sensibility" - that manner of perceiving reality that distinguishes us all. Fr. Greeley's thesis is that there is a distinctive Catholic imagination which he calls "sacramental" - an ability to "see the Holy lurking in creation" or, put another way, to see "created reality . . . as a revelation of the presence of God." This sensibility explains the Catholic fondness for such concrete objects as holy candles, pictures and relics of saints, and the great art created for churches by such geniuses as Michelangelo. In a special place is the veneration (always differentiated from worship) of the Virgin. He sees all these as avenues of grace and thus not merely decorations or religious trappings, certainly not "idols." The ability to perceive them in this way is the hallmark of the Catholic imagination.
Greeley suggests that this quality has been nurtured by the Catholic Church over the centuries and constitutes a genuinely different way of looking at the world, a Catholic way which creates a greater appreciation of beauty and even a fuller enjoyment of the pleasures of life such as food and sex. He makes a convincing case that the capacity for such a perception is passed on from generation to generation not by instruction in theological dogma, but by the story-telling and tangible experiences of religion which the child first learns and loves. This quality, Greeley maintains, stays with Catholics throughout life, whether they are faithful to the institutional Church or not. His essay is supported by a number of studies cited in the Notes which seem to verify his theory.
Greeley has been an effective bridge between Catholicism and those outside it for many years, and this is another such effort which could go far in explaining the use of holy objects to those not accustomed to them. He dispels many of the misunderstandings and distortions which have labeled such practices "idolatry" or "pagan." The book also would be helpful for Catholics who probably have felt what he describes but not analyzed it.
This is an introductory essay, as Greeley explains, and he is not attempting an exhaustive discussion of the psychology behind his observation, but a few questions do arise which suggest a need for further consideration of his theory. One is that Protestantism did come out of Catholicism, and if the "sensibilities" of the two are so different, what gave rise to the rebellion and subsequent loss of the capacity for analogical thinking that led to such destructive zeal by the reformers who damaged so much beauty and left a lasting "anti-object" bias which has marked Protestant churches for so long? Another reservation that a humanist might have is not particular to this book but is the skepticism that "studies" such as he cites, with their necessarily limited pools of respondents and forced answers, can yield solid truth.
Still, these are quibbles that should not mar the value of the book, for its strength is that it articulates a real divide between religious sensibilities - those who view the world as manifesting the immanence of God and those who view it in more austere, Augustinian terms and thus come to fear and distrust its beauty in both nature and art. It may be that these attitudes are more fundamental than Greeley contends and that a variation in worship styles which can appeal to different "sensibilities" is inevitable, but need not be antagonistic.
The most controversial area of the book probably will be the case Greeley makes for sexuality as an analogy for the love of God, and even a means of grace. Even though this idea is not new (he cites St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross), reading about it in such a frank discussion may shock those who are not accustomed to thinking in these terms. It is Greeley's contention that the suppression of love and joy by authoritarian rules has not furthered the interest of either individual Christians or the institutional Church since an overemphasis on sexual repression has served to alienate artists like James Joyce and James T. Farrell and to cause psychological damage to many others. Although Greeley never contradicts or challenges the prevailing rules of sexual conduct overtly, there is an implication here that some changes in the current policy would be salutary. This book will certainly make its readers begin to think about sexuality issues in a new way.
But leaving these questions aside, this book clearly makes its point - that the Universal Church should and does have room for those people who see art, beauty, and nature as revelatory of the beauty and love of God and that the current Church may be making a mistake to discourage the more colorful folk traditions surrounding worship. Greeley contends that it is these living traditions that have maintained vitality in the faith more than the presentation of catechisms and dogma (though he recognizes that these are necessary underpinnings). One remembers Graham Greene's Whisky Priest, who, though once a brilliant seminarian, in his wasted and seemingly failed state remembers only the stories of his childhood. But he is sustained by these in his ultimate martyrdom and implied sainthood. Subtle doctrines defining substance and accident do not have the living reality of Body and Blood when one is in the trenches.
Greeley makes it clear that he is not suggesting that the sensibility he describes is better than a more austere approach, only that it is different and a rich and wonderful experience. He recognizes that superstition is always a possibility when one has a "magical" outlook on life and that the corrective of Protestant austerity has its place. But when a balance of the two is accomplished, religious practice can be much more complete and satisfying. Understanding this point can surely lead to tolerance on both sides.
A last note on the use of the book. In an age when ecumenism is flourishing, it is interesting to note the appeal the "fleshly" approach to worship has for those of other traditions lacking it. Ever since the Oxford Movement of the early 19th century articulated the yearning that many Anglicans had to reconnect with their past, the liturgies of many of the "separated branches" have come closer and closer to those of Rome, particularly in appealing to all the senses. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the ecumenical spirit may be furthered on this grass roots level. It would be ironic if the impetus for reunion should come from this " Catholic sensibility" which in other Christian branches may simply have lain dormant for awhile. I think Fr. Greeley would be pleased if this were so.